The show must go online: Irish festivals respond to Covid-19

The Irish Arts Festivals Archive aims is recording festivals’ response to coronavirus

Over the past 40 years, arts festivals have become an integral part of the social and cultural life of cities, towns and villages throughout Ireland. Each weekend from early April to the end of October, local communities and culturally curious travellers have been able to choose from a selection of different festive events to attend.

These vary in scale, duration and focus: from large-scale events, such as Galway International Arts Festival and Wexford Opera Festival to smaller multidisciplinary community-focused events, such as Dingle's Féile na Bealtaine and Portumna's Shorelines Festival, or single artform-focused celebrations such as Bray Jazz Festival and Cape Clear International Storytelling Festival.

In addition to the important role these events play in bringing arts and culture to communities across the country, they also have a vital function in the social life of communities, marking the passing of the seasons and providing a moment of respite from the everyday.

Festivals have traditionally been a time when boundaries are blurred, when there is an unspoken permission to transgress. The renowned Italian folklorist and anthropologist Alessandro Falassi has described the festive moment as existing in "time out of time", when the king can put on a mask and walk among his people and the pauper can put on a crown and be king.

Confined as we are to our houses and apartments, and required as we are to practise social distancing where strict boundaries are being observed, arts festivals have, like so many other social activities, been cancelled. Can a festival exist in a time of lockdown? What does a festival look like in a time of social distancing? What are the prospects for festivals in a post Covid-19 society?

These are some of the questions that have emerged from the first responses received by the Irish Arts Festivals Archive for the special Covid-19 collection, which aims to capture a record of how arts festivals are responding to the unprecedented challenges they face this year. It will include printed, designed but unprinted, and draft programmes of the many festivals that have been cancelled, postponed or transformed into online experiences. This endeavour is part of the longer-term aims of the archive, which is based in UCD Library, to collect, organise and preserve for future generations the individual archives of Irish arts festivals.

The material collected to date pertaining to the 2020 festival season reveals the terrible loss being suffered by artists and communities across the country. It also provides a fascinating insight into the practice of festival-making and demonstrates the creative agility with which festivals, under huge constraints, are seeking to respond to the crisis. In so doing, they hope to fulfil their commitment to the artists and public they serve.

For festivals happening in March, such as St Patrick’s Festival, cancellation was the only option as they had little time to consider other alternatives. For those following in April and May, which had yet to announce their programme, postponement to later in the year became an option, in the hope that social distancing regulations will be eased. They could also consider transposing some part of their planned programme into an online experience to run when the festival should have happened.

The narrative that is emerging from the festivals that have already contributed to the special Covid-19 collection presents a striking picture of the myriad challenges these organisations have faced dealing with this unprecedented situation. On the one hand they have had to unbuild the complex skeleton of the programme they had been constructing throughout the winter. This includes communicating with artists and production teams, suppliers and community stakeholders; discussing options, changing plans and unpicking and renegotiating contracts.

While these painful and difficult negotiations have been ongoing, many festivals have also been exploring ways to still realise some public-facing activity by adapting part of the work they were planning, or reimagining a new programme that can work in the context of Covid-19 restrictions. For those attempting to present work online, new technologies have had to be embraced, financial investments made and new skills learned.

For those festivals scheduled later in the summer, attempting to present work in the public realm has become a possibility. This is placing further demands in terms of compliance with new health and safety regulations, and the risk of further disappointment is a strong possibility if there is a setback to the proposed schedule of easing restrictions.

What is clear is that the arts festival landscape that has been such a familiar part of the summer calendar of so many urban centres around the country will be, like so much else, utterly changed in 2020. Amidst this maelstrom of building and unbuilding, festival makers are also asking themselves and each other if things will ever be the same again. What sort of festivals will need to be imagined for the post-coronavirus world?

Alessandro Falassi’s research led him to conclude that festivals are “social phenomena” that are “encountered in virtually all human cultures”. This suggests that, moving into 2021 and beyond, communities around Ireland will, as elsewhere throughout the world, still have the need to meet in the relaxed altered reality of the festive moment, to escape the routine of the everyday to a safe space where they have permission to transgress.

What we don’t know as yet is whether the altered festival ecology of 2020 being captured by the Irish Arts Festivals Archive is an aberration – the record of an annus horribilis, with festivals returning to their pre-coronavirus formats next year – or whether it records the beginning of a new era of festival-making dictated by a social landscape transformed by a new etiquette of social distancing.

Dublin Dance Festival

Scheduled dates May 19th-31st
Dublin Dance Festival, which happens in the latter half of May each year launched its programme on March 10th. Ten days later its cancellation was announced. The possibility of migrating the live programme they had planned to an online festival was not progressed for a number of reasons, most significantly because the work selected by artistic director Benjamin Perchet was of stage dance to be experienced by a live audience, which would not translate to a digitized format.

Instead, Dublin Dance Festival devised a “Digital Capsule”, which will include sharing online each day a dance-focused event aimed at sustaining their connection with the artists, audiences, friends and supporters who would have gathered together in venues around Dublin.

The selection of short dance films, documentaries and interactive family events will be presented by the festival as a way of exploring how in the absence of the live, dancers and dance enthusiasts can engage with or think about dance remotely. A series of discussion events for the dance community will also be run to explore the challenges this community is facing during the lockdown and what dance might look like in a future where physical contact is restricted.

An Chúirt Chruitireachta Annual International Harp Festival

Scheduled dates June 28th-July 3rd
This year was to have been a very special year for The International Festival for Irish Harp, as it celebrated the Irish harp's inclusion by Unesco on its list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity. This five-day event taking place in various venues in Co Louth, organised annually by Cairde na Cruite, is an opportunity for the public to experience the foremost exponents of the Irish harp.

However, like most of the Irish traditional arts festivals happening around the country each year, it also provides the opportunity for transmission of the skills and knowledge of the art to the next generation through formal and informal teaching.

For Aibhlín McCrann, director of Cairde na Cruite, the cancellation of the festival is also a significant blow to a small operation that “punches way beyond its weight”. While the voluntary team that organise the event is working to present one high-quality digital concert over the festival period, McCrann believes that “the magic of the harp is the live engagement and interaction with the audience” and “that can’t be replicated digitally”.

Next year will be the 35th anniversary of An Chúirt Chruitireachta; while planning for it is under way, insecurity around such issues as ease of travel and social distancing, combined with the financial strain caused by the cancellation of this year's event, places a small operation like this under enormous pressure.

Baltimore Fiddle Fair

Scheduled dates May 7th-10th
Baltimore Fiddle Festival has run over the second weekend in May for the last 27 years, bringing a host of top-class traditional and folk music acts from around the world, filling every available bed within miles of the small west Cork village. Festival manager Declan McCarthy's work on the festival goes on throughout the year: booking acts, applying for funding, seeking out sponsorship and putting in place the marketing, logistical and technical supports that are needed for an operation of this scale.

Over the last number of weeks, while working to dismantle this year’s planned programme, McCarthy has put in place plans to run the Virtual Fiddle Fair. This will consist of four 60-minute custom-made videos with specially recorded performances by 11 artists and more than 50 short video messages from regular festival attendees from all around the world. These will be released over the four nights of the festival.

He notes that "we all know that this will not be the same as the real thing ; you can't really have a festival without people", nor sadly will it bring any economic benefit to the Baltimore community. However, he hopes that "it might bring a little joy and solace to our audience whilst at the same time raising a little money through donations for our artists".

Clonmel Junction Festival

Scheduled dates July 4th-12th
Although much of the planned programme of the 20th anniversary of Clonmel Junction Festival in early July will not now be happening, the organisation will be running a number of what artistic director Cliona Maher calls "placeholder events", which are reworked and reimagined versions from the original programme. Some of these will be presented online, such as the Maeve Ingoldsby composition set to a poem by Michael Coady, written originally as a choral work, which has been adapted for a husband-and-wife musician duo to facilitate home video recording.

In addition to this and other bespoke digital offerings, Maher is also setting out to present work in the public realm that can be enjoyed while respecting social distancing. Five temporary public art commissions that had an artists' call-out in March will still be installed in Clonmel's public spaces over the period of the festival, where they can be enjoyed by those travelling to work or out exercising. As the selection was made after the Covid-19 lockdown had been announced, the panel had to be conscious in making their choice as to the feasibility of the proposals and their compliance with anticipated restrictions that will be in place in July.